Monday 26 April 2010

2011 – a political census

Next year will be a big year politically – there will be elections for the Assembly, and probably also for the district councils (though it is still uncertain which councils). But 2011 will be significant also demographically, because it will see the next decennial census, on Sunday 27 March 2011.

The census, although nominally apolitical, is a highly political exercise in Northern Ireland – and next year will take the level of politicisation to higher levels.

The 2001 census added to the usual question on religion one on 'religion or religion brought up in', in an attempt to label those who claimed no current religion. This nuance seemed to add considerably to the picture of Northern Ireland's population (though NISRA used some slightly questionable methodologies to 'allocate' those who resisted allocation). The question on 'religion or religion brought up in' will be retained in 2011, allowing demographers to draw some very broad conclusions – and of particular interest will be the 'evolution' of the very young, who had a high rate of non-declaration on the religious question, despite a lower rate amongst their parents (who actually filled in the forms on their behalf!). It will be interesting to see if the 7.4 % of 0-4 year-olds in 2001 with no 'religion or religion brought up in' have grown up to be an equally irreligious group of 10-14 year-olds.

The Proposals for the 2011 Census of Population in Northern Ireland, published in March by NISRA, add several novelties that were not included in 2001, including questions on:
  • Citizenship
  • National identity
  • Main language
  • Ability in English
  • Ability in Irish and Ulster Scots
While these questions may have rational justifications in terms of service provision by government departments, there is no question that in the Northern Irish context they are political questions.

The question on 'national identity' is separate to that on citizenship, and is thus a wholly political question, designed to show what proportion of the population considers themselves 'Irish' or 'British'. It is not clear yet what permutations of answers will be allowed, or if it will be a free-text field. The possibilities include, of course, Irish, British, Northern Irish, 'Ulster', or any combination of these (not counting those people who identify with countries further afield). The results of this question will, of course, be argued over for years – with unionists claiming that 'only X % of the population identify themselves as Irish, and therefore Irish unity is a non-starter', etc. Others may point out the the 'Irish' identity outnumbers the 'British' identity west of the Bann and that re-partition should be considered. Still others will look at the evolution of identities across age groups – if more of the young see themselves as 'Irish' than 'British' then the future if Northern Ireland comes into question.

The questions on ability in Irish and/or Ulster Scots will, no doubt, be used to provide unionists with a weapon to use against an Irish Language Act, and probably also to argue against funding for Irish in general. The 'main language' of 99.8 % of the indigenous population will turn out to be English, and this will, of course, be used against any 'concessions' to the Irish language.

Censuses do not give up their results overnight like elections, of course, and thus while 2011 may provide political shocks at Assembly and Council levels, the census will dribble out its results over a longer period, and influence political discourse for a number of years. It will provide enormous amounts of data for politicians and demographers to pore over, and to argue over. But at the end of the day the most important factor in political decision-making remains election results. No matter what the census tells us about national identity, if a majority of voters vote for nationalist parties, this trumps the census. For that reason, while the political census next year is interesting, the elections will be vital.


menace said...

Hi Horseman, next years census does raise questions, before the event.
Will we be forced to wait 2 years before the results are published, again?
Will it confirm the 1998 study which showed the number of 'catholic' children in national school should by 2012 exceed the number of 'protestant' children?
What, if the above does point to, will be the response of our own, and the British governments and, what will be the reaction of the Unionist population of Ireland?
Interesting times, potentially.

Anonymous said...

Last year's rehearsal quesionnaire is that which will be used in next year's census.

The identity question has a number of options but not 'Ulster' (and a write-in) you will be pleased to note.

Anonymous said...

Just found this website recently and really enjoying reading it.

Keep up the good work.

Great info.

Watchful said...

Horseman, Based on your analysis what percentage range would you expect to see for Catholic Community Background once the 2011 census results are published?

Horseman said...


I haven't done any detailed estimate yet, but my 'rough estimate' is as follows:

Per year, NI population grows by around 12800, of which around 8500 is 'natural growth' (migration muddies the water, so I have to ignore it).

Natural growth is deaths (around 14500 per year, of which 65% Protestant) and births (around 23000 per year, of which around 45% Protestant).

Putting all that together, it is likely that Protestantism has gained less than 1000 souls per year, while Catholicism has gained around 7500 per year.

Over 10 years that adds up to a lot more Catholics than Protestants (and of course many of the migrants will also be Catholic Lithuanians, Poles, Brazilians, Philipinos, etc). The Protestant 'natural incresae' over 10 years will be barely 10000, while the Catholic natural incresae will be around 75000.

So I would expect that the 2011 total of 1815000 (-ish) will include around 815000 Catholics (not including migrants), giving a percentage of about 45%. Protestants will still outnumber Catholics, but will only be a whisker over 50%.

These are very approximate estimates, and the effect of migration is entirely unknown, so the percentages could be a point or two off. We'll have to wait and see!

menace said...

There is another, often forgotten fact, albeit slight; many 'nationalists' my Parents for example and myself, until the last census, do not appear on the British census as we fail to see its legitimacy in our country. This will skew the figures on the census, in a 'border poll' it is likely such citizens would come out to vote in favour of re-unification.

Tom said...

number games, nothings guaranteed, minds change, hearts change, breeding trends also change, I hope we didn't sign a death warrant to our sovereign right. Even if demographics does win the united Ireland, inglorious as it is, I fear we will only become the oppressors of an unwilling minority.With the fight, a full republic can be won, the union broken and the unwilling minority encouraged to leave, those that want to stay can help us build a new and united Ireland......
Although its hard to know what's the best road to follow.

Tom said...

So Horseman, aren't times a changing, are you going to put your faith in numbers?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Tom. Basically the Unionists are undermined because the Catholics outbred them, not because of any reconciliation or enlightenment on their part.